Ten years ago, as a young auxiliary bishop, Anthony Fisher was tasked with planning World Youth Day 2008 — a landmark moment in the life of the Australian Catholic Church that cast a spotlight on the newfound vitality of the Church down under.
Now, ten years later, as Archbishop of Sydney, he will soon be representing the country’s Catholic bishops at next month’s Synod on young people, faith, and vocational discernment in Rome. Ahead of that global meeting of bishops — and in commemoration of WYD — Fisher has released a new book, My Dear Young Friend: Letters on Youth, Faith, and the Future, where he takes up some of the most pressing questions he’s been asked by young people over the years.
In an interview with Crux, Fisher reflected on the ways in which the Australian Church has changed over the past decade, the challenges ahead — including a Church that is deeply wounded by a clerical sex abuse crisis, and his hopes for the upcoming Synod.
Crux: For starters, this book was released on the tenth anniversary of World Youth Day Sydney. How do you believe the Church in Australia has changed in that time as a result of World Youth Day?
Fisher: I think it’s changed in a number of ways. One obvious one has been the active engagement of and with the youth of Australia. Before World Youth Day in Sydney there were only a few youth groups in each diocese and hardly any other youth ministries or events. All that’s changed now, and over the last ten years hundreds of new youth groups have been formed here, there’s now a national youth office and youth council sponsored by the Bishops’ conference, there are many major youth events, and many new youth ministries — both for you and by youth.
In a way, World Youth Day Sydney gave Australian Catholics permission to evangelize and Australian youth permission to come out as Catholic in public — something we weren’t always comfortable with before.
The book was also released as preparation for the Synod on Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment, where you will be a participating bishop. What are your initial reactions to the early document drafted by young people this past March and the Instrumentum Laboris drafted by the Vatican — and to that point, what are your expectations for this Synod and how do you hope you can contribute?
My initial reaction is that these documents confirm for me that many of the concerns I address in my book are real issues with which many of our young people are struggling: issues like mental health (including anxiety and depression); sexual, ethnic and spiritual identity; their educational, employment and housing future; how to form and sustain good relationships, avoiding loneliness and finding a community of real support; the direction of our politics, culture and Church on issues of life and love, justice and mercy; and, of course, being a person of faith in an increasingly secular environment.
The scandals that have rocked our Church — and many people’s confidence in how well we can relate to young people — play in to all this, leaving many young people feeling alienated from institutions like family and Church, and searching for meaning elsewhere. Yet so many still come to our World Youth Days, millions in fact. 15,000 responded to the Australian online survey in preparation for the Synod. 20,000 came to our local Youth Festival last December. And so on: some young people, at least, still look to the Church for community, direction, hope, prayer.
I will be one of the two or three Australian bishops attending the Synod in October and I am very excited both to be attending my first Synod and to be involved in this particular discussion, because I think young people are so important to the life of the Church, not just in the future, but now, today. We long for their presence and energy in our parishes, our worship, our service to the world, and so we must hear why they are too often absent. We must let the Holy Spirit challenge us through them. We need their help to make ours the best Church it can be, for their generation and beyond. In return we must challenge and support them to be the heroes we need and God is calling them to be. Those from the cusp of the third millennium of grace may yet usher in a new era of ideals, virtue and hope if we find ways to include them. It’s my hope that this Synod will be the catalyst for permanent dialogue with young people, which involves the rest of us really listening to them, not patronizing them.
At the center of the book is Jesus Christ — you’ve even divided up the book in four sections: Jesus and his disciples, Jesus and his friends, Jesus and his enemies, and Jesus and sinners. It seems that you’re making your overture to young people by appealing to personal witness as key to the Gospel gaining credibility. Is that fair to say?
I’d say so, yes. I often like to quote our nearly-saint Pope Paul VI’s wonderful insight in Evangeli Nuntiandi, that “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it’s only because they are authentic witnesses” (EV 41). I think this is especially the case with our young people; they crave actions more than words, personal witness rather than theory. When they see that, they will start asking their questions and listening to the words.
I think your use of the word ‘credibility’ is particularly apt, because as I’ve already noted, many people, especially young people, have become disillusioned with institutions in general, and the Church in particular. If we’re ever to regain their trust and confidence, it has to be through personal witness rather than simply teaching. Goodness is magnetic.
You write: “Today’s virtue is tolerance.” While you laud the idea that we should want to hear a range of opinions and not be close-minded, you fear truth is being minimized — especially when it challenges societal norms. How do you propose that Catholics walk that fine line of being open to different perspectives, while also adhering to certain norms of the faith?
This is a very important question, and I think it’s one that many of us, old and young, struggle with. One thing I’d say is that there is a distinction between ‘different perspectives’ and ‘different truths,’ so to speak. What I mean is that being open to, actively listening, giving a hearing to various perspectives is good for you, especially when you are young, as you enjoy using your critical faculties to assess different views and as you are drawing your own conclusions. I don’t want my young friends just listening to what Archbishop Anthony says at Mass or in his latest book! I want them stretching their minds and hearts and imaginations, and arguing (politely but robustly), and examining everything.
But the goal of all that is to find the truth – wherever it lies. The great theologian Fat Tom (St. Thomas Aquinas) once said “Every truth, by whomsoever it is uttered, if it is true, is from the Holy Spirit.” So you listen to everyone not to become dizzy but so as to glean the treasure in every person’s heart and mind. Mysteries as big as God, the universe and ourselves will never be exhausted in one life-time, so we keep looking, but hopefully we are getting closer, no going round in circles. So I think there’s a place for dialogue that celebrates difference, without trying to force homogeneity or abandoning coming closer to the truth together.
The second distinction, which I think is related, is between holding to the truth and ending the discussion. Many people think that if they have the truth, everyone else should agree with them, and they should do so quickly. But that desire is not of the Holy Spirit: it’s ideology, it’s fanaticism. Discovering the truth in all humility should make us generous in sharing it and faithful in living it, but it doesn’t foreclose further discussion. When I warn against a dictatorial tolerance it’s against the kind that says ‘I’m OK, you’re OK, you’ve got my truth, I’ve got mine, so there’s no need to exchange views.’ That’s deadly.
The book is peppered with literary references to pop music, and with television, film, and theatre citations such as Les Miserables, Captain America, and Stranger Things. In other words, it seems you’re trying to use language that’s familiar to young people. Why is this important to you and how do you think the institutional Church can do more of this?
When Jesus used parables like the wheat and tares, or the good shepherd, or the yeast in the dough, he was drawing on the world of his audience — most of whom, by the way, were young adults. But most of our young people could not distinguish wheat from weeds, have never seen a shepherd, and rarely make their own bread. But what they do know is movies, what they do do is music. So I follow Jesus’ example and see what in their world can speak for God. That’s something Pope Francis has encouraged — though he’s more into football than movies.
I also like Emeritus Pope Benedict’s thought that in addition to the magnetism of good action, and the persuasion of good argument, there is also the via pulchritudina — drawing people through beauty. Art and music, food and cinema, memory and imagination — all these experiences can be the starting point for some deep reflection, not just superficial enjoyment.
I think there’s lots more our Church could be doing to enrich, reflect upon and critique such aspects of culture. I’d love to see Catholic film festivals, Church book clubs, youth music competitions etc. as much as theological academies (important as those are too!). Young people can help us think such things through and do them in creative ways.
You don’t shy away from addressing darkness, even within the Church, such as the abuse. Why do you believe it’s important to respond head-on to the mistakes of the past?
Above all, because of the young people who have been hurt. We must honor them with the truth, and do what we can to bring them healing and justice. We must root out whatever caused or allowed the abuse culture to flourish or be concealed. We must make our Church the safest of places for our young people. Until we do that, we can hardly expect them to trust us or what to contribute to the Church’s life.
What’s more, young people have excellent phony detectors. They have no time for hypocritical leaders or teachers. So if we want to connect with them, we’d better be serious about what we teach about life and love, the young and the old, reverence and respect, chastity and the rest. We all struggle, of course to be ‘the real deal’ as Christians. But enough is enough, more than enough, when it comes to abuse and lies about abuse.
Lastly, give us a final preview of what to expect in the book: What can Taylor Swift teach us about the resurrection and reconciliation?
Well, you’ll have to read the book to find out! But let me give you a hint. Despite so many ‘break-up’ songs, Taylor Swift is always looking for the love that works. Her classic break-up album, Red, deals almost exclusively with the end of relationships, yet it finishes with a song called Begin Again, which describes the blossoming of new love. I think that we can be like this sometimes with God; we keep breaking things off, but whenever we turn back, he’s there, waiting to begin again.